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Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Legion of Trouble (Luke 8.26-39)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
August 21, 2011
Some Music Used 

 Prelude: "Prelude on Ellacombe" (Kerr)
Hymn of Praise: "I Sing the Mighty Power of God" (ELLACOMBE)
Song of Praise: "Everlasting God" (Brown)
Offering of Music: "I Will Rise" (Tomlin, Giglio, et al.)
Song of Sending: "Amazing Grace/My Chains are Gone" (Tomlin, Giglio, et al.)
Postlude: "A Mighty Fortress" (Held)

A Legion of Trouble
Text: Luke 8:26-39

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

The Bible is full of miraculous stories, but this one sounds out there, even by Bible standards. Jesus is traveling on from one spot to another, this time by boat, and when he steps off the boat he is greeted by a naked, demon-possessed man who rushes out of the graveyard and begins begging Jesus to leave him alone. Between that and Jesus casting the demons – a legion of them – into a herd of pigs that then rushes into the lake and drowns, this story is pretty vivid and beyond ordinary by any measure.

So what do we do with a story like this?

I don’t want to take for granted that “demon-possession” is a normal topic of conversation… it’s not. And I will get to explaining more about this, but first I’d like to walk through the story with you. So for now, I know it’s fantastic language not part of our day to day vocabulary or experience. But when you hear ‘Satan,’ ‘demon,’ ‘possessed,’ or ‘unclean spirit,’ know that I am not glossing over those words, taking for granted that we all understand or know what they mean. I will say more about it.

It’s tempting to reduce this story to a problem and solution, and move on. We might think, “Man is possessed by demons; Jesus casts them out; case closed.” But Jesus didn’t spend his ministry identifying problems and offering solutions. Rather, he came to bear witness to the character, nature, and unfolding will of God.

I’ve observed before that much of Jesus’ ministry is presented in the Gospels either as teaching (usually in parables) or as miraculous signs. This is one of those miraculous signs. And whether teaching or performing miraculous signs, Jesus was always pointing back toward God – what God is like and what God is doing in the world. So, those are the kinds of questions we want to ask as we look again at this fantastic story. 

A Confrontation

So let’s back up to the confrontation as Jesus steps out of the boat. He is “met” by the naked, man from the tombs (v. 27). I find that interesting and had not noticed that before. Jesus didn’t go find the man, nor did others bring him, but the man came out to meet him (or at least ran into him). I don’t know whether the man still had some control and was looking for help, or if the demons claimed that area as their territory and saw Jesus as a rival authority, or what, but I find it interesting that the man comes out to meet Jesus. Maybe his appearance is all it took to scare most people off.

Most key to this confrontation is the information that the man was “possessed with demons” (v. 27). This spiritual assault upon his humanity had left him a broken man, held hostage to the powers within him. It also seems to bear some Gospel weight that he is naked and homeless, both categories of need that Jesus addressed in his teaching and an indication of how the demons had robbed his humanity. The next verse says, “Seeing Jesus…” or “When he saw Jesus.” So, it’s not clear to me if the man sought Jesus out or just ran into him and recognized him. But what he says next is clear enough: he recognizes Jesus’ authority. He (or the demons) cried out and fell before Jesus, and said loudly, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (v. 29)

It is also interesting that human beings struggle to recognize Jesus for who he is – then and now; but the demons knew EXACTLY who stood before them. And it is clear who has the greater power. The man not only cries out, falls before Jesus, and identifies him, but begs Jesus, “Do not torment me!” (v. 28) And here’s where the timeline and specific language gets even a little more interesting. Why “do not torment me?” What has Jesus done or what might he do to cause torment? The explanation is given in the next verse (v. 29): “For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man.” We did not have the all-seeing perspective of a narrator… something had already gone down between Jesus and the demons that is just now coming out. Jesus had already acted with authority, commanding the spirit to come out. This was the torment (to the demons). This was at least one reason they already knew who Jesus was. Perhaps it’s even why the man came out to meet Jesus in the first place. Perhaps Jesus did see or sense the unclean spiritual presence and command it as he arrived.

Well, whenever and however that happened, we don’t know. But we are told enough to recognize the confrontation and the clash of power. And Jesus had the greater power and authority.

Next we get some of the details of what life was like for the man. We are drawn into his need and brokenness. The unclean spirit had “seized him many times.” (v. 29) The people of the town had tried to chain and guard him, but the strength and power of the unclean spirit was greater than those chains and guards, and the man had been driven into the desert (more than once?). (v. 29) So, not only had this spiritual power overcome the man, but also the town, who could not contain him. All the more, then, as we read these details, we understand and appreciate the greater power and authority of Jesus!

Finally, in the exchange between Jesus and the possessed man, Jesus asks his name. And he answers, “Legion.” We are given the explanation that this was because many demons had entered him. (v. 30) There was not just one unclean spirit, but an army of demonic spirits. And for the second time, this Legion begs – implores! – Jesus, now that he would not command them to go away into the abyss. (v. 31) This abyss is referenced again in Revelation 20 as the place of confinement for evil spirits.

There is a herd of pigs nearby. And for the third and last time, the demons plead with Jesus, asking to enter the pigs, and Jesus “gives them permission.” (v. 32) Interesting that. He doesn’t command them to go to the Abyss, though he could have. He doesn’t actually even command them to go into the pigs. He permits it. Honestly, I don’t understand it, but I think it’s beyond the main point of this story. I do know that pigs were considered unclean, and these demons are called “an unclean spirit.” I do note that the result of going into the pigs was immediate self-destruction; perhaps in contrast to the measured and slow destruction of the man’s humanity. Perhaps it also illustrates that the demons have free will, and choose disobedience and death over the worship of God.

What seems clearest to me in the whole encounter is that Jesus doesn’t just solve a problem; rather, he demonstrates power and authority, and in doing so reveals the character and nature of God. He also demonstrates the clash of spiritual kingdoms, though also foreshadows the victory of the Kingdom of God over the false kingdom of the evil one. Jesus was “breaking into” another kingdom or realm – that of this world and of Satan. He was announcing and initiating the coming of God’s Kingdom in and over that of this world. 

A Legion of Trouble

Okay, so maybe we grasp a little bit more of what was going on here. Jesus has power and authority over Satan; God’s Kingdom is come and He will reign forever. Does this story have any direct bearing in our lives today?

Yes - I believe it does!

I haven’t really addressed who or what the demons are in this story, so let me clarify a few other things.

Do I believe demons and Satan are real? Yes, I do. The Bible mentions them several times and depicts a spiritual realm that has a certain degree of power, for a time, in this world. And that realm is ruled by Satan, the “Prince of the power of this world.”

Do I believe that demons can possess or torment human beings? Yes, I do, though we must be careful not to let Hollywood establish our understanding of what that means or looks like. And “possess” is misleading; in most cases, people invite or are unguarded, and give over space in their minds and hearts to evil influences. And, those who trust in Jesus Christ should be encouraged that if you are in Christ, then God’s Spirit lives in you – which you might also think of as possession… the Bible uses words like “dwells, abides, lives in.” And if God’s Spirit lives in you, then no demon can also live there, though you can still be tempted.

I’ve also heard it said that “demon-possession” was basically how people in ancient times explained a whole range of mental illness or other maladies that are explained today by modern medicine or psychology. I think there is some truth to that, but not in every case, and clearly not in this one. Jesus performed many healings, which are described in those terms in scripture. In this case, he did not ‘heal’ the man, but commanded unclean spirits to come out of the man. The language and actions throughout this encounter are those of conflict, kingdoms, power, and authority. And Jesus had the greater power and authority. Furthermore, the demons moved INTO the pigs. Never, when Jesus healed someone, did that malady move to someone else. This was an encounter with the enemy, and Jesus was victorious.

Having said that, there is more application to this text than “Well now you know what to do if confronted with a legion of demons.” That is because Jesus’ authority and power are not just over unclean spirits, but over all of creation.

So, I would expand the point of this text to include the “Legion” of things that we struggle with as human beings, while being careful not to write off “demon-possession” and the spiritual realm as a superstitious and ignorant shorthand for ordinary human problems.

So what am I saying? I am saying that human beings indeed face a legion of problems – physical, emotional, financial, mental, and to be sure… spiritual.

And whether it is chronic illness, depression, anger, debt, addiction, sin, or other dark and evil influences, we can give those things more power in our lives than necessary. We can and often do yield authority and power of our lives and find ourselves stripped of dignity, control, and even home and family.

And I’m not saying that any of those things will disappear instantly if you will just say the name of Jesus. In fact, the bargaining of Legion in the story is a pointed reminder that we, too, will bargain and cling to things physical, emotional, financial, mental, and spiritual. Nor would I let anyone oversimplify any of life’s struggles for you. As we move out of the spiritual realm, it is often prudent and wise to seek earthly help in the form of counseling, medicine, physical training, and more.

So clear as mud, right? Let me clarify one more time in the area of application. This passage is not teaching that all of life’s challenges should be attributed to some sort of afflicting demon, much less one that can simply be banished in Jesus’ name. If you watch enough cable TV you will hear that approach to your debt, your illness, your depression, or whatever other ‘problem’ you want to solve. I strongly encourage the appropriate education, equipping, consulting, or whatever else is appropriate to the problem. What this passage holds out, far above a quick solution, is Jesus the Son of God, who has all power and authority in heaven and earth. Where we give our lives away is yielding our humanity and wholeness to our debt, depression, disease, or whatever it is to Satan’s control. We lose our identity and become “an alcoholic,” “a manic-depressive,” “a financial failure,” a “cheater” – a naked, homeless, graveyard man – and forget that we were made in the image of God. Jesus comes before us, in power and authority, to say, “That is not who you are!” This story, like the woman caught in adultery, seems to be all about the conflict between powers, but in the end it is a quiet invitation from Jesus to one person – to each person – to re-identify with God’s grace and power, to find a new name and identity. 

Power and Authority for What?

Okay, I said “in the end” – but Jesus’ power and authority are not the end of this story. Rather, Jesus is the subject of the story, revealing the character, nature, and will of God. What happens as a result of him demonstrating his power and authority over the spiritual realm is the freeing of a man to live and witness to the coming Kingdom of God. And it wasn’t just the man that was involved in that witness, but several groups.

There were the herdsmen, who “saw what had happened… ran away and reported it in the city and out in the country.” (v. 37) They were involved witnesses, who saw the destructive power that the man was subject to released onto their herds. I think, for example, of someone who has struggled with alcoholism finding some freedom from that and the storeowner or barkeeper once frequented taking notice of the change. It cost the herdsmen something, but they were not blind to the significant transformation of someone known to them. And they told the story. Maybe you have witnessed God’s power and authority, not directly in your life, but in someone near to you. You are a witness to the Gospel.

Those who heard the herdsmen tell the story “went out to see what had happened.” (v. 35) Interestingly, they “became frightened” when they saw the man whole, well, and sitting at the feet of Jesus in his right mind. More of those who had seen what happened “reported to them how the man who was demon-possessed had been made well.” (v. 36) But that only served to frighten some of them more, and the local crowd asked Jesus to leave. We are told again that they were “gripped with great fear.” (v. 37) What was going on there? I think the bottom line is that they feared Jesus’ power and authority, greater than what they had previously known and feared. And so Jesus leaves, but not without an ongoing witness in that place.

The final witness is the man who had been tormented and now was free. He begged Jesus to take him with him (v. 38), but Jesus told him to stay with these words: “Return to your house and describe what great things God has done for you.” (v. 39). And we are told that he did so, he “went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him.” (v. 39) He, too, was a witness – he had a story to tell. He once was bound and chained – physically and spiritually – and now he was free, and had a home to go to, and a story to tell.

This text makes two very strong and related points. First, Jesus has all power and authority in heaven and on earth. And the Gospel story is the announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. He alone is worth “giving over our lives.” And the arrival of God’s Kingdom in Jesus Christ – on earth and in your life – is a story worth telling. In fact, that is the imperative in this passage. We are invited TO Jesus, to come and see, to trust and believe, to yield and serve. And we are sent FROM him to go and tell, to bear witness, to tell our story, and to witness to God’s story. Amen.

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